A New-Old Approach to Art: Part 1

September 16, 2017

The origins of art, as far as we are able to tell, date back to two 100,000-year-old paint mixing kits found in the Blombos Cave in South Africa. The two kits comprise red and yellow ochre fragments and residue (not local to the area), stone tools for grinding and hammering, mammal bones, and abalone shells that served for mixing bowls. Whilst we do not know what the two kits were used for, we can look to the cultures of modern primitive societies, Old Europe and the Paleolithic, to hypothesize why archaic Homo sapiens, our ancestors, created art. 


The first and indeed the simplest theory for art produced as long ago as 30,000 years was that it had no meaning: it was just idle doodling, graffiti, play activity or mindless decoration. Funnily enough this is similar to how most view young children's scribbles today: it is meaningless or transitional, mere motor activity or a prelude to the "actual" drawing phase. Yet recent research shows there is a clear intention behind young children's gestures


Later investigation suggested that prehistoric art served purely magical ends or that the motivation for those paintings was to ensure success in the hunt. Erich Fromm, a German social psychologist, psychoanalyst, sociologist, humanistic philosopher, and democratic socialist, believed this belittled the art itself and is a far cry from explaining their beauty. "People have other interests that go beyond the practical, the functional, and the object as tool or utensil. They want to be active in a creative way; they want to shape things, to develop powers latent in themselves".  Further, overall there are actually very few depictions of hunting scenes, and the animal bones found in many decorated caves bear very little relation to the species depicted on the walls, so it is clear that the artists were not, by and large, drawing what they had killed or wanted to kill. 


We know in Old Europe, a term coined by Marija Gimbutas, a Lithuanian-American archaeologist, to describe a pre-Indo-European Neolithic culture in southeastern Europe located in the Danube River valley, humankind was part of a matriarchal society that was peaceful, honored women and espoused economic equality. According to Johan Jakob Bachofen, a Swiss anthropologist most often connected with his theories surrounding archaic mother-right within the primeval Matriarchal Urreligion, and pre-cursor to theories of prehistoric matriarchy, including Gimbutas's Old Europe,  the ruling principles were the natural bonds that draw people together. Needless to say this is unlike our current patriarchal society, which developed in the Neolithic, and prioritized the state, the law, and the abstract, and is nothing further from peaceful.


Art proliferated this Maternality, a term I use in place of matriarchy, as it conveys a cultural belief valuing the qualities of the maternal, and motherliness in each individual regardless if you were male, female, a mother or not, and avoids simplistic associations with being the feminine equivalent of a patriarchy. As Shari L. Thurer says, author of Myths of Motherhood, the paleolithic mother-goddess oriented culture worshipped not necessarily the transcendent mother goddess in the heavens but the Great Mother located within each individual and all things in nature. On the assumption that art mirrors society, it would seem that art was an embodiment of the beliefs at the time: natural, used to draw people together, and possibly shaped in such a way to show reverence to the Great Mother in each individual and all things in nature


Shari L. Thurer goes onto say“…the role of the earliest [paleolithic] mothers was wider than at any other time in history, their nature more fully expressed, their contributions to their society more valued, their creativity more celebrated, and their influence on civilization more influential than a modern, particularly a Western, observer might imagine.”


In this maternal-oriented Urreligion, the placement of the paintings in the 'belly' of the cave, makes more sense, for what could more aptly represent the pregnant mother, than the pregnant earth? And what action could show more reverence than traveling often through miles of dark, narrow tunnels in search of the inner cave (as a symbol of the female womb) to worship the maternal? 


Not only was the journey and search for the inner cave spiritually significant, but also the materials used and the images themselves. Ochre, including red ochre, was used to make paint, and has had a long association with the sacred, and cause for many a pilgrimage. The Diyari men of Australia, for example, took two months to travel the thousand-mile round trip to collect their red gold from the Bookartoo mine at a place called Parachilna. They used to return home with 20 kilos of ochre each, already formed into baked round cakes. Victoria Finley, writes in Travels through the Paintbox, that red ochre was the first color paint, and it has been used on every inhabited continent since painting began. Red ochre was most likely symbolic of menstrual blood, or life-giving uterine fluid, as it is still in some primitive cultures today, and something considered so special to warrant a thousand mile round trip on foot. An entirely different experience to our quick trips to the local art store!


We are more familiar with the depictions of bison, and other animals, perhaps because they are easier to define and explain, yet these in fact make up the minority of prehistoric art. Most art was actually abstract and nowadays researchers believe that these marks may have been of equal, of not greater, importance to our archaic ancestor's than the recognizable figures. The interpretations of these paintings and engravings once thought to represent arrows, barbs and weapons of the masculine hunt are actually plants, trees and reeds, products of feminine foraging. The mysterious carved notches found on many cave panoramas are now understood to be a recording of the menstrual cycle and lunar months of pregnancy, and depictions of triangles and flowers are currently thought to represent the vulva.


So to summarize so far, and to begin to develop a new-old framework for making art based on the original culture, and the original purpose for its creation.  There was clear intention behind humankind's first art, it was a natural extension of the individual and the community, and the materials and paintings themselves were essential and integral to this peaceful civilization. Art was an active way to be creative; a want for humans to shape things, and a way to develop powers latent in themselves. It was natural, and used to draw people together, and approached in such a way to show reverence to the maternal in each individual and all things in nature. 


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